Eat a Peach

Searingly honest memoir about defying the obstacles (New York City, 2004 to present, and other cities in the US, Australia, Japan; backstory Northern VA): If “the most compelling stories are the ones about people on a quest complicated by impossible obstacles” (see Resilience, Courage, and Hope – Getting Through Hard Times), then by that standard alone, David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach is “most compelling.”

Chang is a world renowned, break-the-mold chef who founded the Momofuku “Asian-influenced egalitarian” restaurant chain that defies categorization. Innovative dishes that mix Asian and non-Asian (Italian, Mexican) foods, so please don’t call his cuisine Asian-fusion, he says. One of many things Chang takes pains to make sure we know – culinary and more broadly about the challenges of being Korean American, and someone dealing with manic-depression. 

Chang is the real deal. Not what you might expect from a forty-two year old man who created an Empire, making his memoir different than you might expect. A give-it-all-you’ve-got and then some spirit breaking expectations and stereotypes, reflecting the same gusto he gives to his craft.

In 2004, Chang opened his first Momofuku restaurant: a Noodle Bar in the East Village in Manhattan with minimalist décor but high energy, cooking in front of diners, creating dishes with smells and tastes people never smelled or tasted before. As Chang tells it, there was nothing like it before.

So you might expect that the winner of the most coveted cooking awards in the world – James Beard, Michelin, World’s 50 Best Restaurants – a man named by Esquire as “one of the most influential people of the 21st century”, along with Time magazine calling him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World – would be full-of-himself. Yet Chang does everything he can to try to convince us he doesn’t deserve the success he’s achieved. Commendable that he wants to express how much he owes to his extraordinarily talented and loyal staff. But it’s not due to modesty. It’s incredible honesty. 

Over and over, he tells us that he’s not the man you think he is. That he got to where he is on a fluke. Cooking was the one thing he “didn’t hate doing,” nor failed at. No matter how hard he tries – and he tries harder than most – he ends up showing us why he deserves the accolades. Compelling, because he seems like one of the most honest people in the world.

David Chang has traveled the world, to “gather from everywhere.” “I wanted to know why people liked what they liked.” His first trip was to Japan, eye-opening as it inspired the idea of preparing food for everyone to see, then used “the dining room as a classroom” to observe whether they liked what they ate. Borrowing and adapting is why he says his cuisine is not “authentic.” At least he agrees that what he ends up serving is one-of-a-kind, but for someone whose gone as far as opening a “culinary lab” in NYC to experiment with ingredients like a scientist, he doesn’t give himself enough credit for never resting on his laurels.

The more self-effacing, the more the author sounds like someone suffering from Impostor Syndrome. No, he believes he’s suffering “survivor’s guilt.”

Surviving a childhood marked by failures in school, bright but not bright enough for one of the nation’s top-ranked high schools in Northern Virginia where he grew up. Surviving the negative impact of “tiger parenting,” he wants us to know not all Asians are academic powerhouses.

Chang is, though, a powerhouse. An ultra-perfectionist, he made himself into one.

Eat a Peach isn’t singularly focused on the culinary arts, which in his case relies on vision, leadership, teamwork, unrelenting eighteen-hour work days, with encyclopedic knowledge of the history of great chefs and what makes a great chef. (An Appendix, 33 Rules for Becoming a Chef, earnestly boils down “usable” advice.) He’s also well-read outside culinary circles, so you’ll also get a flood of philosophical thoughts, and “various cultural truths” about Korean-Americans, most of which he doesn’t agree with. He recognizes that what he has to say about his culture may be offensive, but it fits with his fierce honesty.

Chang does believe in a “Korean emotion” called han, which he describes as:

“some combination of strife or unease, sadness, and resentment, born from the many historical injustices and indignities endured by our people. It’s a term that came into use after the Japanese occupation of Korea, and it describes this characteristic sorrowness and bitterness that Koreans seem to possess wherever they are in the world. It is transmitted from generation to generation and defines much of the art, literature, and cinema that comes out of Korean culture.”

Chang is an eloquent and thoughtful writer. It would be remiss, then, not to point out he’s also a frequent user of profanity. He knows it, and works to tone down his anger. How can someone be so angry having achieved so much?

Chang is intense. He feels injustices, suffers deeply. Complex emotions, like his complex cuisine. Emotions – “my personal brand of rage” – are key to his success. “I think the job – the fear, the stress, the habits I’d learned, the culture – unlocked what was already inside me.”

That’s the tip of the iceberg. Chang was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Clinical depression zaps your energy so badly you can’t even get out of bed, yet Chang is the definition of a workaholic.) His editor wanted him to avoid discussing it, reminding us mental illness is still a stigma. That’s not who Chang is, so he tells us right from the get-go.

In a striking and seductive Prologue, he uses an interesting and effective vehicle for introducing himself in five pages. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the memoir’s editorial process. The cover design is described in detail, with images, as to what went behind it. He did not want his picture on the cover, nor draw attention to his name. Printed in pale white, we focus on how he perceives himself as a tiny man in the universe pushing a gigantic peach up a mountain, conjuring the image of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. The peach is also significant, as the meaning of Momofuku in Japanese is “juicy peach.” 

Not a tiny life, that’s for sure. Besides his numerous, wildly successful restaurants around the globe, he’s authored two bestselling cookbooks and created a Netflix documentary series called Ugly Delicious that fans anxiously await news it’s been renewed for a third season. 

After surviving some do-or-die restaurant experiences, he came up with the idea of a daily email system with his staff – The Roundtable. We’re treated to many examples of how everyone was brought into the loop on every detail no matter how small or “crazy;” how much he encouraged new ideas; what it means to lead regardless of the obstacles; how magical it feels when it all comes together; and how beautiful it is when a leader treats his team like family.

David Chang may sound like someone who doesn’t like himself all that much, but we do. We like his tell-it-like-it-feels prose, full of his inventiveness, perseverance, and yes, authenticity, wanting to be the best he can be. 

How will COVID-19 affect his restaurants? He’s closed two, but he’s a survivor with tremendous creativity. The memoir makes us feel he’ll climb these new, formidable mountains, help lead the way.

Lorraine

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The Nesting Dolls

The trauma of Russian Jewish oppression passed down five generations (Odessa, Ukraine and a Siberian labor camp, USSR, 1931 to 1975; Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, 2019): The catchy title of Russian-American Alina Adams’ sweeping historical family tale comes from the brightly painted, wooden Russian female dolls ranging in size from larger to smaller, each fitting inside another. Representing motherhood, they also represent four of the five Russian Jewish female characters, all mothers from different generations of a single family, in the Nesting Dolls. 

The doll/character who doesn’t fit comfortably is the smallest/youngest one: Zoe, the protagonist, twenty-something-ish, single, childless. She’s not supposed to fit easily as she’s the modern-day character, half-in and half-out, having trouble fitting in with the Old World and a Russian-born-in-America’s new one. The older women’s stories help explain why.

Could anyone other than a gifted writer born in Odessa, Ukraine – like three of the five generations of women in Adams’ novel – who immigrated with her family to America in the 1970s when a wave of Russian Jews were able to escape their Communist “prison country” – be able to craft such an emotionally authentic Russian Jewish historical novel? By the time you reach the final page “About the Author,” you’re likely to think maybe no one could.

By definition, a novel that chronicles a family over a period in time is a sub-genre of fiction called a family saga. The Nesting Dolls easily fits that descriptor. Chronicling the Russian Jewish experience reaches far beyond that.

A whip-smart, four-page Prologue introduces four generations (the first generation is no longer alive). If your brain is like mine, you may find the familial names/relationships a bit confusing. Please don’t put this book down, thinking you’ll return to it when your mind is clearer. Because as soon as the novel opens in 1931 with Daria’s incredible Odessa-to-Siberian labor camp journey, you’ll be mesmerized. Reading what it was like to have “no rights, only obligations” will be painfully clear.

One more caveat: please don’t think all five generational stories are as deathlike and soulless as Daria’s, although the three women born in Odessa had “lived in the dread.” Rather, it’s how the scars from their experiences got passed down to Zoe, that provoke the question, Can you ever escape the trauma of persecution?

To get you past the brilliant, enigmatic Prologue that you’ll return to some 250 pages later when it makes perfect sense, below are the characters’ names and relationships to Zoe, because that’s how the reader must understand them.

First Generation Daria: Zoe’s great-great grandmother. Born Dvora Kaganovitch. Hers is the longest story. Chapter 1 opens with Daria just married to Edward Gordon, a famous pianist “too privileged, too genteel” for the bleak, harsh Soviet system. Traveling the world to give concerts made him a suspect, an enemy of the State. Truth is all you had to do was act like an “individual above the collective” to be viewed as a traitor, especially if you were a Jew. The newlyweds lived with Edward’s father and were watched over by a giant of a man, Adam. There’s even a Russian word for him: dvornik. He watches their “comings and goings” at their “crumbling” apartment building. Adam is the reason Daria ends up in the frozen tundra of Siberia.

Kommunalka is Russian for communal living. Four generations of these women lived that way. No privacy, and always feeling like someone will turn them into the authorities. Zoe is the outlier again, the only one living alone. But she stays close to the other three generations living together in Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn enclave where Russian Jews immigrated to.

Second Generation Alyssa: Zoe’s great-grandmother, in her eighties. Also referred to as Balissa and Baba. Zoe’s story kicks off in the Prologue in the apartment the three women share, with an ignored man, Deda, Alyssa’s husband. Zoe’s there to help pull off Baba’s forty-fifth anniversary party, but Baba doesn’t want one. Her daughter, Julia, Zoe’s mother who lives with them, insists they do. No one knows why Baba is adamantly against it. Her secret unravels for us. At the end, at the party, glimpsed by everyone who quietly gasp. 

The party isn’t the only thing Baba is negative about. It’s everything, because she was with Daria in that brutal labor camp. The product of “terrible child-rearing,” she mostly blames the “entire political system of the USSR.” Today, this survivor is a silent, bitter soul, but through it all she’s maintained her dignity.

Third Generation Natasha: Alyssa’s daughter. Zoe’s grandmother or Baba. Born Natalia Nikolayevna. Blame is carried down: she blames her mother for doing nothing about “a genocidal regime.” “The Jewish problem” in the USSR meant she was denied entry into the university to study math, which she deserved. She shared an apartment with another family: Boris’. He’s accepting and focused on “commonplace things,” the complete opposite of Natasha, who inherits her mother’s bitterness and yearns to do something meaningful with her life. What could be more meaningful, and dangerous, than getting mixed up with a mission “to expose how the Soviet system brutalizes its people”? 

Fourth Generation Julia: Zoe’s mother. Divorced. A “soft-spoken, conflict-adverse peacemaker,” unlike Julia’s mother Natasha.

Fifth Generation Zoe: Also called Zoya. Born Zoyenka. Confused about many things. Doesn’t want to dwell in the past. She’s the one who wants what we want: happiness and joy, in a career and romance, but that conflicts with what her family believes is best. An example of how this doll/ character is stuck in the in-between: “When I date American guys, I feel like I don’t fit in with them, and when I date Russian guys, I feel like they don’t fit in with me.”

There are many ways to describe the novel. One is that it’s a clarion call to activism, reminding us that “change can come only through action.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, it’s rare to uncover family records of Russian Jews as they simply don’t “exist”. So another way to describe what Alina Adams has most notably done is uncover one family’s record that feels awfully true.

Lorraine

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Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life

Finding happiness where you’d least expect to (Rockaway Beach, New York, 2010 – 2017): Inspiration can be found in surprising places. So you don’t have to be a surfer, an athlete, a sports enthusiast, or a beach person to think of former New York Times reporter Diane Cardwell’s memoir, Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life, as a motivational tool for all of us wanting to, or needing to, pick up the pieces of a life gone awry. Extraordinarily timely.

During the seven years Cardwell tips-her-toes in, then goes headstrong all in, to dramatically change her high-pressured New York City lifestyle into a more carefree surfing life on Long Island – a “roll-with-the-swells life” – she was a journalist who covered numerous beats: politics, business, the arts, entertainment, hospitality, the real estate industry.

Prior to 2010 – when her story begins after a reporting assignment in Montauk, at the tip of Long Island, that got her fantasizing about a life around beaches and surfers – she’d been the Times Bureau Chief to Mayor Bloomberg’s office; journalism fellow at Stanford University; and a founder of Vibe magazine, and other writerly endeavors.

So up until forty-five, she wasn’t that laid-back, riding the waves person. She’d grown up in a household where “achievement was the reigning narrative,” and yes, she’d achieved a great deal. Her transformation, a different kind of achievement, is a delight to read.

Inherent in that high-achiever focus was believing “failure would not be an option.” Which is what makes Cardwell’s story so powerful and inspiring. After she found herself learning how to live after a marriage that seemed destined not to fail ended in divorce and childless, finding herself terribly lonely, living alone for the first time in twenty-years, having felt she’d failed at achieving her dreams, she then undertook surfing. Which meant she then chose to take on failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment, to learn a sport that may look “simple” but is anything but.

No matter how many teachers she sought out, first at Montauk’s Ditch Plains prime surfing spot, at Rockaway Beach, and after all the muscle-aching fitness training she had to do to develop the strength needed to paddle the waves (like standing up on the surfing board or pop up in “surf-speak,” a lingo that runs throughout that sounds like another language), she learned surfing is a formidable sport. It’s one thing to learn on sand, quite another in the ocean.

Rockaway shows us what happens when you set your mind, body, and heart to achieve what may seem impossible. The author went from being a “daytripper” to a full-time resident. She took her time making this all-important decision, but when she spotted a charming, century-old bungalow among three others overlooking a garden they shared in Rockaway, she fell instantly in love with it. Bought it despite much financial angst; then renovated, furnished, and adorned it with “sea glass decorations” without hemming-and-hawing.

To see the author and her surfboard, her bungalow and community garden, Rockaway beaches, streets, and shops, this article she recently contributed to the Times gives you a good picture, though the memoir’s expressive prose already does that.

Not surprising, the author writes with a reporter’s eye for detail and a water-lover’s heart, with the warmth and friendliness of someone you’d like to hang out. It’s hard to pick out one paragraph that doesn’t meet those descriptors, but for all who’ve never been to Rockaway, an outpost in the borough of Queens on Long Island, here’s how she describes the coastal area:

“If you imagine the entirety of Long Island as a giant fish, with Brooklyn and Queens as the head swooping underneath Manhattan and the Bronx toward Staten Island and New Jersey to the southwest, its body and tail would stretch one hundred miles northeast into the Atlantic. Montauk would sit at the southeastern tip of its tail, and the Rockaway Peninsula would form the bottom of its jaw, with Jamaica Bay filling its open mouth.”

Cardwell’s grit, perseverance, passion, courage, resilience, and authenticity led her to find the kind of belongingness she hadn’t felt before. The friends she knew and makes in this surfing community left her “dumbstruck.” “I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a secret tribe of magical creatures – fairies and nymphs frolicking in a hidden bay.”

If not for Cardwell’s inner strengths and the friendships and camaraderie of surfers she might not have survived an “extratropical” catastrophe: Hurricane Sandy. Expect to read about weather conditions, meteorological predictions, the science of waves and tides, as this reporter made sure she understood what she was dealing with. 

Another aspect of the author’s childhood instrumental to her surfing story is that she spent happy summers on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So while Cardwell has fears and insecurities she doesn’t fear the ocean, though respects its power. Most of the time she’s in awe of it, although a Prologue opens the memoir with an event in 2013 when she realized she’d gone too far out, beyond the “outside.”

Cardwell’s gumption and discipline is impressive, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t stop questioning herself. “Why do I always have to be this way?”What am I doing wrong?” And yet, when she experiences a fleeting moment riding a wave, she feels a “rush”: “a “powerful high – cosmic, euphoric, liberating, addictive.” Overcome by the beauty and freedom she feels. 

As someone born and raised in Queens, whose parents were one of those daytrippers to Rockaway Beach, the memoir is nostalgic of days gone by, although this “frontier” started to change in the early 2000s.

Surfing boards have evolved into works of art. The beginner board is not pretty, designed for safety at the expense of fast. So you’re in for a treat when the author feels ready to buy a sexy, new, faster board. Expect lively descriptions of longboards and shortboards. 

The residents of Rockaway Beach were considered “hipsters.” After Hurricane Sandy, they became “helpsters.” Rockaway pays tribute to some of the “toughest” people Cardwell says she’s known. 

If you’re life feels stuck, Diane Cardwell shows us it doesn’t have to be that way. A phrase we’ve been hearing a lot lately about COVID-19. The message is that when we feel despair, Keep at it, Keep at it, Keep at it. Eventually, happier and freer days will come. For Cardwell, this meant discovering “a place where a lot of people constructed their lives around their lives . . . rather than trying to shoehorn a little happiness in between all the obligations.”

As America gropes its way through a flashing-red-light catastrophe on so many levels, Rockaway is a must read.

PS You can see more pictures of Diane Cardwell’s new life on her website: https://dianecardwell.com/.

Lorraine

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Paris Never Leaves You

The moral price of survival (Paris pre- and during WWII; Manhattan 1950s): You don’t just read Ellen Feldman’s historical novels. You devour them.

Feldman is an accomplished author of seven historical novels – Paris Never Leaves You, her newest – and an historian. Reading her body of work explains why she won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 to support her art and creativity. Reviews of her earlier novels call them “masterful.” Paris Never Leaves You is no exception. Feldman’s prose and storytelling are so emotionally immersive, it feels as if we’re witnessing history as it’s happening.

The third-person narrator in this novel punctures the assumption that the most intimate voice is the first person. To stay true to the moral angst of the fictional main character – Charlotte Floret – the author/historian knew that what she’d lived through was too unbearable for her to relive in the telling.

What did Charlotte do that was so awful, so compromising of her moral compass, she believed she sold her soul?

Charlotte’s story alternates between the lead-up to and during Hitler’s invasion of Paris, and ten years later after the war in mid-1950s Manhattan where she’s immigrated to. All years haunted and influenced by her conflicted conscience. Hers is a story of doing whatever necessary to protect her daughter Vivi. Survival “never comes with a clear conscience.” 

Opening in Charlotte’s 1954 Manhattan office where she’s an editor for a “prestigious publishing house,” she receives an air-mail letter she throws away unopened. She’s received others like it, none opened. Mailed from Columbia, South America, the only thing we’re told, except that somehow it made its “way through the Drancy records” to have found her. Drancy is also referenced in the Prologue, so we assume Charlotte survived a concentration camp. She doesn’t speak about being Jewish, only to repeatedly say “Hitler made me a Jew.” So we assume the soul-killing, unspeakable horrors of the Nazis are why Charlotte cannot tell us her story. It’s more than that.

We’re not just seeing fictionalized lives through an historical lens, but seeing into Charlotte’s ashamed soul, as well as the mysterious letter writer’s anguished soul. The novel never leaves you because it has a powerful and complicated moral soul.

The complexity of moral choices is consistent in both historical timelines, so it feels as if alternating chapters by timeframe is a new literary technique. Of course it isn’t, but you’ll gulp down Charlotte’s Paris survival story as a single-mother protecting her four-year-old daughter Vivi – both of whom saw Nazi brutality up-close – in the same breath as ten years later, when Charlotte and Vivi are living in NYC. Vivi is now fourteen, and while their lives have drastically changed, Charlotte remains vigilant about protecting Vivi. Her secrets, fears, and disturbed conscience are still very much alive. So is anti-Antisemitism. In a pivotal scene, Vivi comes home from her exclusive private school upset and hurt that a classmate reneged a coveted party invitation because her grandmother did not want a Jewish girl there. Vivi is old enough, curious, and persistent to want answers about her religion, her past, her identity. You feel for this lovely, well-behaved young lady who deserves answers. Charlotte knows that, another moral dilemma. Tell truths, or keep hiding them?

Paris Never Leaves You was supposed to be published June 2020. The delay allowed this reviewer to catch up on many of the author’s earlier historical novels. With five read, a few characteristics were noticed: 

  • Morality is a consistent theme across novels set during different historical periods.
  • The historical perspective is different than others we’ve read, or about a slice of history we haven’t.
  • Even with plenty of emotionally powerful WWII stories, Paris Never Leaves You differs too, focusing on a character’s (actually two others) struggles with moral consequences, for different reasons.

Charlotte’s tormenting wartime moral decisions were made out of sheer desperation for basic survival needs – food for her wasting-away daughter (and if any leftovers for herself) – and a hunger for human kindness and companionship that upended her righteousness. 

Two other examples of how morality plays out differently in two more of the author’s powerhouse books: Terrible Virtue is also a story about a courageous woman who fought and sacrificed, but not for her family or herself but for a cause bigger than her: a woman’s right to control her body. Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement, is likely new to us. Her staunch moral convictions were guided by what she knew was righteous despite having to abandon her family, which took a great toll. Charlotte never abandons Vivi, quite the opposite, but she does abandon her moral principles so she and Vivi can live.

Lucy is based on the true story of the triangular relationships between FDR, Eleanor, and Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s young social secretary for whom one of America’s greatest presidents loved and needed during a world crisis. Whatever you think of Lucy’s morals, her actions made a difference in history.

Charlotte’s actions didn’t change history like Margaret’s and Lucy’s, but history changed Charlotte. While hers is not a story of complicity with Nazis like other Parisians, nor joining heroic French resistors to defeat the enemy, but a German soldier is at the heart of her tale. He frequented the Paris bookshop she was managing for her father. (A “leftist publisher,” he fled Paris before the Germans arrived.)

Charlotte is a Sorbonne-educated woman who speaks four languages, ideally suited to takeover the bookshop since she loves books. An added bonus for all bibliophiles, you’ll read about Parisian bookshops from that era, Nazi censorship of books, and Charlotte’s Manhattan publishing world.

Horace Field, the publisher, is her boss. A larger-than-life force despite being wheelchair-bound. They go way back as he was a friend of Charlotte’s father, so he’s taken the role of her protector – professionally and personally. The reader keeps an eye on Horace, as does Charlotte, having been introduced to a “certain loucheness lurking behind the scenes” at this publishing house. Just as the morality theme is complicated, so is Horace. His fighting, survivalist soul is mixed in here too, dramatically. 

Horace doesn’t just find a workplace fit for Charlotte when she arrives in America, he also owns a four-story brownstone where Charlotte and Vivi live on the top floor. Horace’s wife, Hannah, is a thorny but dedicated psychoanalyst who sees patients in their home. Childless, she becomes a devoted mother-figure for Vivi when Charlotte is still working and Vivi comes home from school. 

Hannah’s psychological training eggs Vivi on to find out about what she’s been questioning. Who was her father? What’s it feel like to be a Jew?

Charlotte has told Vivi nothing about her father, not even his name or picture. All she knows is that he was killed in the war. Likewise, as noted, she doesn’t know anything about the Jewish religion. Hannah believes unlocking those secrets is fundamental to Vivi’s identity development. More entangled relationships, more moral conflicts. And suspense. 

Feldman is a master at controlling the intensity and mystery of the plot. She unfolds it bit by bit, at first subtly, then louder, then screaming. The pace echoes Hitler’s rising hold on Paris. It also reflects the build-up of emotions in Manhattan relationships, and another recurring theme: trust.

By the time the novel comes full circle, the identity of the mystery letter writer is revealed. You may have suspected who the writer was, but the letter’s contents will still catch you off guard. Paris Never Leaves You is the work of a master at the top of her game.

Lorraine

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Tea by the Sea

Unbearable losses, and the fight to get what’s yours back (Jamaica and Brooklyn, 1990s – 2010s): Tea by the Sea might be one of your favorite feminist novels of the year. Surely Jamaican-born Plum Valentine, the protagonist, will capture your heart as she’s “focused on mattering, on not being a person so easily discarded and left behind.”

Plum has been a victim of not having “agency” in her life. Lacking control and the freedom to choose her destiny, others made dreadful decisions that predetermined her life, leaving her behind. Her childhood was marked by strict parental control that ripped her away from her beloved Jamaican homeland to an immigrant’s life in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, where she did not belong. Twice they re-shuffled her from Jamaica to Brooklyn and back, abandoning her again and again. At seventeen, she suffered “the most greatest loss” of all: the day after she gave birth to a baby girl in a Jamaican hospital her daughter was carried away by the father, Lenworth, without letting anyone know their whereabouts. Plum had planned to name her Marissa, which in Spanish means the sea and signified the “promise and freedom” she never had.

For seventeen years – “6,205 days give or take a few for leap years” to be exact – she searched from Jamaica and Brooklyn for the daughter whose father told her she was “left behind” by her mother, telling everyone else she’d died. For Plum, that’s seventeen years of “calcified grief”; for her daughter, you’ll wonder what she believed.

Debut author Donna Hemans has written a stirring story that deserves the important Jamaican literary prize she was awarded by the Jamaican Writers Society. It also deserves national attention, tackling the complexity of human emotions, raising a fundamental question about what matters most to live a good life, asking moral questions about motivations and terribly misguided decisions. The eloquent, atmospheric prose also reveals little-known black history at an historical time when America is demanding its racist history be better known. While this is not a novel focused on social justice, it is embedded in its laser-focus on seeking justice for one mother and her daughter.

The Una Marson Award honors a leading Jamaican activist and poet who advocated for Caribbean literature. Another Jamaican poet and activist, apparently legendary, Louise Bennett-Coverly, was celebrated last year on her 100th birthday with a petition (it failed) to recognize a second official language in Jamaica, called “patois,” besides English. She’s credited with raising the dialogue of the Jamaica folk to an art level. Plum’s story is activism in a deeply personal way.

The use of patois is a feature of Jamaican literature. Hemans’ writing mingles the two ways of speaking artfully. English is the more common, but the local dialect is authentically expressed, flavored with dialogue like this: “One day him come back wid hur,” and “Mi dear, you nuh have to ask.”

Judge Tea by the Sea by its exquisite cover! Which establishes Plum’s love of the sparking blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the powdery white sandy beaches encircling Jamaica, a large tropical island south of Cuba, part of the West Indies that become a country when it achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1962.

By Burmesedays via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA]

Plum’s major obstacle to finding her daughter is finding the father who kidnapped her, proving incredibly difficult as he reinvents his life twice, and never looked back. He named their daughter Opal, because her almond-shaped, topaz eyes reminded him of a jewel. Eyes that were also a constant reminder of Plum as they were the same. So was their skin, darker than his.

Will Plum find her daughter? That’s the central question propelling gripping storytelling. 

The freeing sea is symbolic of the searching plot to set oneself free, by taking a stand for what’s morally right, despite the consequences. When the novel ends, Plum is thirty-four and while her emotional life feels “suspended” and “fossilized” she has moved on. The floating sea also personifies the “unending” push and pull of Plum’s changing life.

The prose ebbs and flows too. Offsetting the almost indescribable pain of unrelenting grief, which the author has found heart-stopping words for, are lovely descriptions of Jamaica’s colorful setting – “Spanish style” and “plantation” architectural types, abundance and diversity of flowers and trees, spicy cuisine. Yet the beauty is pierced by Plum’s raw pain, and the island’s racial history. So the prose goes from feeling like a calming summer breeze to intense yearning and suspenseful searching that never fades.

Interestingly, the timeline also floats, moving back and forth without being specified until the end, seeming to emphasize the timelessness of a mother’s grief and the longing for the mother a girl never knew. Except for one date, the only date that really matters: September 16th when Marissa/Opal was born.

The geography spans Jamaica from its western coast to east, but is mostly set in small, rural towns on the northwestern side, near Montego and Discovery Bays.

Montego Bay:

By Gail Frederick via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

On Discovery Bay a plaque commemorates Columbus’ sailing into the bay in 1494:

By Raychristofer via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA]

The Columbus history is important for another reason: “the Tainos, a group long extinct from Jamaica, decimated by hard labor and the diseases brought to the island by Christopher Columbus and the cohort of explorers, diseases for which their bodies had built no immunity.” Once we may have dismissed epic diseases as ancient history, but today we know better, living in a moment when history feels like it’s repeating itself. Erasing Jamaica’s indigenous people also reminds us of America’s shameful history towards Native Americans. Jamaica is also another country with a legacy of slave history.

The varied settings let us imagine Jamaica, and take us through the different places Plum lived during her formative and later years; also to an abandoned house Lenworth first took Opal to. He grew up in a poor, rural village near the eastern side; a built-up Kingston on the eastern coast is one of the areas Plum searched.

Part I is aptly titled Unforgettable, and Forgettable. Plum’s loss is unforgettable since she’s been tossed aside so many times she feels forgettable. Except to Opal, who senses her mother’s gone as an infant unable to be soothed by one of two substitute mothers, and then at four when she expresses the missing piece of herself asking: “How come I don’t have a mother?”

While you want to abhor Lenworth, your feelings about him are not black-or-white. Hemans has created a nuanced character whose motives and childhood influences give us insight. Still, the tragedy that ensued was a doomed decision he regretted the rest of his life, but didn’t do anything about except do everything in his power to hide by carefully controlling his life. Power, or the lack of it, is a driving force and theme. 

Of course Lenworth knows he committed a crime, actually two. First when he was twenty-three and and Plum got pregnant under-age at sixteen. He was also her tutor at her boarding school (a throwback to British rule) so he’d crossed the line professionally as well. The second crime, the kidnapping. The tragedy is seen on multiple fronts. Plum and Opal are not the only ones who’ve suffered, he has too. But our sympathies are always with Plum and Opal, who we know little about, as this is Plum’s story, told through Plum’s mournful soul.

A brutally emotional story, yet it’s painted with beauty, resilience, and so much determination it makes Plum the unforgettable person she fought so hard to be.

Lorraine

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